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Lord Elgin – enlightened liberator or avaricious looter?

The heightened interest in the Parthenon Marbles following the visit by a team of lawyers to Athens [1] has prompted many recent articles on the subject.

Here, Vicky Pryce & Dominic Selwood argue the cases on opposite sides of the restitution debate.

Remember to vote in the poll on the website at the top of the original article.

Part of the Parthenon frieze in the British Museum [2]

Part of the Parthenon frieze in the British Museum

Prospect [3]

Duel: should we return the Elgin marbles?
Did Lord Elgin liberate or steal these priceless historic artefacts? Our panellists battle it out
by Vicky Pryce, Dominic Selwood / November 13, 2014
Published in December 2014 issue of Prospect Magazine

About authors

Vicky Pryce (Yes)
Vicky Pryce is a Greek economist and former joint head of the UK’s Government Economic Service

Dominic Selwood (No)
Dominic Selwood is a historian and barrister

At the beginning of the 19th century, Thomas Bruce, Lord Elgin, was the British Ambassador to the Ottoman Empire, which occupied Greece. He entered the Parthenon in Athens and documented the sculptures, making moulds and casts. He bribed Turkish officials to allow him to engage in daily excavations before removing a large part of the marbles to Britain. Bribing occupying powers to purloin national treasures is not the sort of behaviour usually deemed worthy of a British Ambassador.

The looting that happened during the Second World War has, on the whole, been made good. No one accepts the right of those who occupied half of Europe to walk off with the revered relics of those subjugated nations in the 20th century. So why was it acceptable to do so in the 19th century?

Britain missed a trick by failing to hand the marbles back during the 2012 Olympic Games, which would have been a spectacular gesture. That it did not is a sad reflection on the enfeebled spirit of philhellenism in Britain. Lord Byron, who died in Greece after travelling to fight in its war of independence, condemned the cultural vandalism of his fellow peer, Elgin. But today there are no Lord Byrons in Britain willing to raise their voice.

The marbles might be great emissaries for Greece in the British Museum, but the fact remains that much damage was inflicted on the structure in the process of extracting the pieces that were taken away. They were brought here in dubious circumstances for the personal satisfaction of an individual who then sold stolen goods to the government.

And the name itself jars. Let us never forget the late Melina Mercouri, the actress and former Greek Minister of Culture. Speaking in an Oxford Union debate in 1986 she said:

“…And the Parthenon marbles they are. There are no such things as the Elgin marbles.

There is a Michelangelo David.

There is a Da Vinci Last Supper.

There is a Praxitelles Hermes.

There is a Turner Fishermen at Sea.

There are no Elgin marbles!”

The Greek government has never sued for the Parthenon sculptures in court because it knows Elgin did not “loot” or “purloin” anything. He acquired them legally, and saved them for the world. In the next best thing to a judge’s ruling, the world’s leading legal expert on art and cultural property, John Merryman of Stanford University, has stated that the modern Republic of Greece has no legal, moral or ethical claim to the sculptures. This may come as a shock to many people, but that is because they have never been told the actual story.

Elgin was a profound lover of classical art. When he was appointed British Ambassador to the Ottoman “Sublime Porte,” he personally paid for artists to take casts and make paintings of the sculptures so he could share them with a wider European public. However, once in Athens, Elgin saw that the Ottomans (who had ruled Greece for 350 years), were allowing the sculptures to be broken up for sale to tourists, used for rifle target practice, and ground down to sell for the lime. Appalled, Elgin applied to the Ottoman authorities (the lawful—and only—government of Greece at the time), and obtained a firman, or permit, to remove the sculptures.

Elgin spent around £70,000 on the rescue (including salvaging every last piece of sculpture from a ship that sank). In modern terms this is many tens—perhaps hundreds—of millions of pounds. However, Elgin accepted £35,000 from parliament for them as he wanted the sculptures to go into the British Museum, even though other buyers offered him far more. It all left Elgin with a gargantuan debt that took his estate almost a century to clear.

So, rather than baselessly maligning Elgin, we should be thanking him. Without his personal intervention there would be no amazing sculptures—just the pollution-wrecked, blurry stones that were only recently brought indoors in Athens. Fortunately the world still has Elgin’s original casts to see what the sculptures he left behind once looked like.

Accordingly, whatever people decide should happen to the sculptures today, it is an outright fabrication to cast Elgin as a looting, bribing vandal.

Much depends on what you perceive to be “legal.” The Ottomans were an occupying power against whom the Greeks, with the help of many nations and individuals such as Byron, rose up to reclaim their land just 10 years later. That gives the purchase of the marbles no legitimacy.

The legitimacy of the “permit” obtained by Elgin, which in his view authorised the removal, was hotly debated when he brought the statues to Britain, as it only survives in translation. At best it talks about taking “some stones” back—not a wholesale destruction of the Parthenon. The reason for his action is also dubious. If there was urgent need to protect the Parthenon from attack, why not take it all? And if indeed it was threatened, how come whatever Elgin left behind, still spectacular though bereft of many parts, has survived more or less intact since the Greek revolution that pushed the Turks out?

Britain is a far-sighted nation. Opinion polls suggest that those who believe the marbles should be returned far exceed those who don’t. Here, the sculptures are kept in a dark uninviting room in the British Museum in London, not in their natural habitat. The new archaeological museum in Athens is the most magnificent state of the art building at the foot of the Acropolis. The original statues are in rooms facing the Parthenon, so that they blend with the replica casts outside to give a spectacular view and enhance understanding of the importance of what was created by the ancient Greeks.

Twenty-two million visitors came to Greece last year, many of those drawn by the country’s historical significance. They also come for the weather. Seeing the Acropolis and the Parthenon where the marbles belong in bright sunshine under blue skies takes your breath away. As Mercouri pointed out, 95 per cent of Greeks will never see the missing Parthenon marbles in their lifetime. It makes no sense.

The reason so many people believe the Parthenon sculptures should be returned to Greece is that activists dishonestly keep telling everyone that Elgin stole them. He quite plainly had full permission to take them. The Acropolis was a military base with restricted access back then. Hundreds of local workmen laboured for years to take down the sculptures in broad daylight, transport them to Piraeus, then load them onto ships—all under the eyes of the authorities. Looking at all the evidence, no judge would convict Elgin of theft.

You say the purchase has no legitimacy because the Ottomans were an occupying power. But that is not how the world works. Greece is not the only country to have been conquered (the ancient Greeks, you will recall, were pretty good at conquering themselves). The Ottomans ran Greece for nearly 400 years from the mid-1400s. Are you saying that throughout that period every governmental decision was invalid until Prince Otto of Bavaria became King of Greece in 1832? As you can guess from the name, he was not Greek either. Hundreds of countries have suffered conquest: borders move, peoples shift. When Elgin saw the destruction of the Parthenon and wanted to save its sculptures, who do you say he should have asked?

It is also not correct to say that the sculptures he left survived “more or less intact.” They are in a dreadful condition—pitifully damaged by acid rain and pollution. Many were not brought indoors until the 1990s. Some are still on the Parthenon. The only reason some exhibits in the Acropolis Museum look so good is because Elgin’s original casts were used to inspire models and significant restoration work. It is true that the British Museum used abrasive restoration techniques in the 1930s (along with the rest of the world, including Greece), but the damage was insignificant compared with the degradation caused by exposure to 20th-century pollution in Athens.

What belongs together should be together. Imagine if English people had to see St Paul’s without its dome or only half of Stonehenge. The marbles don’t make sense out of their natural setting.

For more than 2,000 years, the Parthenon and its marbles withstood the weather, invasions and wars, and stood as a symbol of the values that created what we now know as Euro-Atlantic civilisation. Then an Englishman extracted them and buried them in a building in London.

I do not dispute that borders move over the centuries; that occupying powers come and go; that the world changes. But Greece is still there; the Hellenes have not been expatriated or evicted; and the Parthenon stands where it stood.

There was no legitimacy in the Ottoman occupation, and there was even less in taking from an enslaved nation the stones that personified its history. But debating the morality, legality or motives of a British diplomat accredited to an occupying power can fill pages. And the idea that possession is all that matters is asymmetrical and unworthy.

Today, great nations know how to make good and offer restitution for what happened in the past. In 1863, Henry John Temple, Lord Palmerston, invented gunboat diplomacy when he sent the Royal Navy to bombard Athens in a show of imperial power. Britain no longer has an empire but it has the chance to prove it is great again by returning the marbles to their legitimate owners.

This debate cannot be argued with flattering distractions about Britain’s magnanimity. This is a serious question about the world’s museums and what they should hold. For example, the National Archaeological Museum in Athens has a large collection of Egyptian antiquities. Should these be returned? Or are museums allowed to acquire pieces legitimately for exhibition to the public? Ultimately, in terms of provenance, there is nothing that puts the Parthenon sculptures into a special category.

I agree that the new Acropolis Museum is stunning. I also believe that an exhibition there of all the Parthenon sculptures, reunited, bathed (through glass) in Athenian light, would be magnificent for all lovers of classical Greece. I would be the first to buy my ticket. But Greece has flatly refused the British Museum’s offer to loan them the sculptures. So where does that leave things?

What needs to change is the language of the debate. The world should be able to discuss these wonderful sculptures without half-truths, nationalist emotion or false accusations against Elgin, whose courage and love of art saved them. When he arrived, the Parthenon was a roofless wreck: gutted and defaced by the Greek Church and blown up in 1687. Without Elgin, there would likely have been no realisation in Ottoman Athens that the Parthenon’s remaining decoration (about half) was unique, and the chances are that there would now be nothing left at all.